Big, Boxy Apartment Buildings Are Multiplying Faster Than Ever

Amid the materials shortages, price hikes and other craziness of the housing market last year, something remarkable happened. US builders completed more apartments in large multi-unit buildings than ever before.

Yes, these numbers only go back to 1972, but with other statistics indicating that 1972-1974 marked the all-time peak in overall US apartment construction, it seems safe to say that the 214,000 housing units completed in buildings of 50 units or more in 2021 has never been surpassed.

This news, contained in annual Characteristics of New Housing data that the Census Bureau released with little fanfare earlier this month, may come as something of a surprise amid a pandemic that emptied downtown office buildings and brought real estate bidding wars to outer suburbs and mountain resorts. Big apartment buildings don’t really seem to match the moment.

One explanation for their continued boom is that, to be completed in 2021, large apartment buildings generally had to have been in the works before the pandemic hit. According to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction, the average time from permitting to completion for multifamily buildings of 20 units or more that were finished in 2021 was about 19 months.

But that doesn’t explain what’s coming next: After dipping in 2020, the number of new units authorized in multifamily buildings took off, running 37% higher over the past 12 months than in the same period in 2018/2019.